How I Stopped Listening to Grown-ups and Became a Writer Anyway
Like most humans, I wasn't born with an innate sense of how I wanted to live my life. It took a few decades of exploring and experimenting (a.k.a. fucking off) to realize that writing was what I wanted to do.
It wasn't that writing hadn't ever occurred to me. A couple times during my schooling years a teacher would muster the courage to stray from the status quo of simply preparing students to pass tests. At those rare moments I'd get a frivolous assignment, an absurd assignment, an indulgent assignment: to write a story! I'd hunker down with a pen and paper, much to the dismay of my childhood friends, and spend all my free time conjuring up a story. Looking back at the excitement of those moments, it should have been obvious that young-me would do well to pursue writing as a career. But, like most adventures, my path was not so straight forward.
Being spat out in midwest and sent directly to Lutheran school, I was handed, by the big and wise grown-ups, a very narrow list of destinies. If I was devote and studious, I could wedge myself into a local church as a clergyman. If I turned out to be more braun than brain, I could shuffle off each morning to work at one of the steel mills near Chicago. If I decided to be a real go-getter, a real champ, I could join the military! Those were the only options proposed to me by the grown-ups during the first decade of my life. Unfortunately for the impressionable young-me, they didn't stop there. The big and wise grown-ups also did their very best to squash any alternatives that young-me was foolish enough to dream up.
For example, sometime around my eighth year as a human on Earth, young-me produced my first "book". As far as I recall, it was a story about a boy going on an adventure with some monsters. Probably something trite and overdone, but hey, I was a kid! To young-me, it was new and wondrous and magical. I was so completely obsessed with the story, I spent weeks not only handwriting chapter after chapter, but also adding colorful illustrations and binding the whole thing together using cardboard and newspaper.
I suppose my teacher thought it wasn't half bad, because she submitted it to a state-wide competition for young authors. It won first place! She volunteered to drive me all the way to the young author's convention on the Indiana University campus so I could accept the award in person. I spent the day surrounded by authors, books, and stories. I got to meet real authors and other students, who like me, aspired to become real authors. I was ecstatic!
The kindling was kindled. The spark was sparked. That was the day the dream of being a real writer was ignited.
Buckets of Cold Water
On the long drive home, I couldn't contain myself. I unloaded my dreams onto my teacher. After all, she'd been so supportive! I sat in her passenger seat, waiting for her to throw fuel on my fire, to give me guidance, to help me figure out how to do the damn thing. Instead, she threw bucket after bucket of cold water at me.
She explained that it was time I learned how the world really works. Pursuing a life in art or writing was a foolish and dangerous endeavor. The odds of being a successful writer were worse than winning the lottery. The rare few who seemed to be living as authors or artists were merely lucky. They were the lucky ones. And, to be perfectly clear, young-me was not one of the lucky ones.
Young-me was a bit headstrong and argumentative, so I attempted to argue with the big and wise grown-up. She, in turn, unleashed the firehose on my dream. She agreed that while she couldn't stop me, the one thing she could do is provide me with the real outcome of pursuing such an impractical life: disappointment, misery, poverty, and yes, the biggest gun of all: eternal damnation! Yes, if I risked such a foolish life, temptation would surely follow, and I'd be putting my very soul at risk. Young-me knew not to head down any path that would lead to eternity in hell.
The fire went out. I sat in the passenger seat quietly looking out the window for the rest of the trip home.
The Lost Years
Time passed. Tiny embers remained. A gust of wind would occasionally blow across them and they would brighten momentarily. Ideas would come to me out of nowhere. Entire stories, characters, worlds. I eventually started writing them down, keeping them in a log file. That single log file evolved into a folder full of outlines. Sometimes I would hear the folder of ideas calling to me, begging me to breath life into them. Every time, the voice of that teacher would appear and shout them away. Over the years I became very adept at ignoring that folder.
I'd wasted a full two decades of life. It's impossible to know all the factors that led me back to writing as a career. I read a bunch of amazing books. I was inspired by incredible movies. I met and worked with entrepreneurs who taught me that it's possible to build my own vehicle for financial stability. External support, a special college degree, luck: those things were bullshit. They were not required for what I wanted to do.
What was required was actually so goddamn simple it blew me away: Defiance, courage, self-confidence, hard-work, and persistence. I couldn't buy them at a university. A half-forgotten sadist in the sky didn't drop them like grace upon a chosen few. No one outside myself could give them to me. Those were things I could practice and develop, if I focused my mind.
One key factor that I attribute to bringing me back to writing was a book titled The War of Art by Stephen Pressfield. When I found the book, I had already been running my own business for a year. I'd learned the basics of entrepreneurship and I'd married them to a hobby I enjoyed doing. The business was growing. I was relatively happy. But the work wasn't madly, deeply fulfilling. The War of Art challenged me to look back at my life and find the thing that I find madly, deeply fulfilling. Halfway through the book, like a punch right in the face, it hit me. The young author's convention. The ride home with my teacher. The years spent working on other assholes' dreams. It all came into focus.
I chose a story from my folder, and I started writing. I applied the values I'd learned from entrepreneurship: I defied my conditions. I wrote despite the fear of rejection. I believed I could eventually learn to write well. I worked as hard, and as often, as possible. Before I knew it, I had a novella. Then another. Then a novel. And the greatest news of all is that there seems to be an endless supply of stories in my folder.
Time for a reality check, asshole! Come on, you know that some of you big and wise grown-ups are thinking that. Let's not get carried away and do something crazy! Don't quit your day job! Think about the future! Right? We fools have heard it all. You know where you can shove that grown-up "wisdom".
I acknowledge that it could take years for me to develop just an ounce of talent that great authors possess. I may never develop it. I've decided to give zero fucks.
I'm having fun telling stories. Given that there are around 7.6 billion other humans on Earth, I'm betting that I can find a few who will enjoy them.
This is what I'm going to do until the day I die, come hell or buckets of cold water.